Gains by womem are hallmark of eventful era

From outer space to the workplace, 'woman's hour' has arrived in many lands.

Nov. 24 - When former astronaut Mae Jemison was a little girl in the 1960s, she used to wonder if there were really aliens in outer space. And, she worried, what if these creatures bumped into an American spacecraft full of men and concluded that all humans "look like these guys."

By 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had accepted its first women for astronaut training. Fourteen years later, Ms. Jemison herself was blasting into orbit on board the shuttle Endeavor - the first woman of color to go into space.

One by one, the number of "firsts" women have yet to achieve is dwindling. Women head major corporations. They run universities. They have their own professional sports leagues. They make millions on Wall Street.

Women serve as generals in the military, but are still not allowed to go into combat. A record number of women will serve in the next Congress, but they will still comprise only 9 percent of the Senate and 12 percent of the House of Representatives. Only two chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies are women.

Women also have yet to crack the ultimate glass ceiling: the presidency of the United States.

But in the 90 years since The Christian Science Monitor began publication - itself a notable achievement for a woman, the paper's founder, Mary Baker Eddy - the advancement of women remains one of the period's premier developments.

Even by 1933, when the Monitor was celebrating its 25th anniversary, women's gains were celebrated in the most lavish of terms. "The Emergence of Women: Most Stupendous Social Drama of Modern Times" read the headline over a lengthy article by staff writer Millicent J. Taylor. Rights and practices that are now a given were still new and immediate sources of pride - the right to vote (achieved in 1920), the ability to work in male-dominated professions, such as the law and medicine, the right to form unions, the ability to speak in public without being viewed as "unsexed."

Then, Miss Taylor heralded individual women as "a credit to their sex" - such as Dr. Mary E. Woolley, a leading educator who in 1932 became the first woman to represent the United States at an international disarmament conference.

"In law they have their Judge Florence E. Allen and others," Taylor wrote, referring to the first woman to be a state supreme court justice. "In aviation, they have their Amelia Earhart, and in government their diplomat, Ruth Bryan Owen, their Grace Abbot, chief of the Children's Bureau, and their Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins."

Today, the roster of women judges, aviators, diplomats, and government officials would fill a large phone book. Two women serve on the Supreme Court. A woman, Eileen Collins, will command a space shuttle mission. A woman serves as secretary of state, the nation's top diplomat.

But in 1933, the pioneering women Millicent Taylor wrote of were a much rarer breed. Only a few decades earlier, women received little formal education, could not own property if married, had no right to the custody of their children in the event of divorce, and could rarely hold leadership roles in church.

The year 1908 saw many noteworthy events. Not only did Mrs. Eddy launch The Christian Science Monitor, but also The New York Times named its first female reporter, Nancy Hale. Marian Nevins McDowell opened an artists' retreat, the McDowell Colony, in Peterborough, N.H. In San Francisco, a waitresses' union was formed and in New York, the first brokerage house only for women traders was established.

Still, women were seen as the "weaker sex," requiring special rules to protect them from the rough world and from unladlylike appearances. In 1908, New York City passed an ordinance banning women from smoking in public places. By 1933, workplace laws remained in effect that restricted the labor of women, in the name of protection. Ironically, laws preventing men from abusing and raping their wives didn't come until much later.

One of the most profoundly life-altering - and controversial - developments of the century for women has been the advent of legal birth control and abortion. The availability of artificial birth-control methods allowed women greater control over their reproductive health, and thus, over every other aspect of their lives. They could delay or prevent child-bearing, space their children, and plan careers. Women also felt freer in the sexual arena, putting them on a more equal footing with men.

The Supreme Court's legalization of abortion in 1972 freed women from the dangers of illegal abortionists. But it also unleashed the fiercest social debate of our times, pitting fervent believers in the sanctity of the human fetus against equally impassioned believers in a woman's right to control her body.

Easy access to abortion in America also opened the floodgates to the widespread use of the procedure, leading to the highest rate of abortion among Western industrialized countries and exacerbating the clash between forces on both sides of the abortion debate.

Women's progress this century has not marched forward in a smooth, ever-upward path. As women's choices have expanded, so has the tension between those who make differing choices.

For some women, the latest wave of feminism - launched in 1963 with the publication of "The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan - represents a triumph in the fight for equality with men, not quite reached but ever closer.

But for other women (and men), the women's liberation movement has only served to tear at the traditional family, freeing women to leave their marriages, go to work, and leave the rearing of their children to others. Though most mothers these days participate in the paid labor force, either fulltime or parttime, a fierce debate rages over whether mothers should work - and whether the government should do more to support working parents.

When Vanity Fair magazine published this month a list of the 200 most influential women in America, some readers complained that it celebrated only women whose achievements were in the outside world and ignored the everyday heroes who stay at home, raising - and sometimes even schooling - their children themselves.

To feminists, such criticism misses the point: Women today have more choices than ever. They can choose to be full-time moms or they can go to graduate school and run a company or for Congress and maybe even be elected president some day. Or, as most women do, they can lead a life that falls somewhere in between.

Before founding this newspaper, Mrs. Eddy, a supporter of the rights of women, looked ahead to the approaching 20th century, and wrote:

"This is woman's hour, in all the good tendencies, charities, and reforms of to-day."

But she recognized there would still be opposition to the rights of all, and with a jibe at her opponents, she wrote:

"It is difficult to say which may be most mischievous to the human heart, the praise or the dispraise of men."

As most women would agree, the barriers that females face today are largely cultural, not legal. The victories of feminism have shifted the movement to a new phase, one that's harder to define. In film and on television, activists speak of the need for more images of women as equal to men, not romantically dominated by them.

For ex-astronaut Mae Jemison, now a professor and technology entrepreneur, the world hasn't changed enough for women. Being at the table with men isn't enough. What has to change, she says, is for women to stop excusing themselves for being there.

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